As it turns 25, funding squeeze risks cutting SANDF down from African titan to token
Proud record in SA and beyond comes despite lack of budget support
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) turns 25 this year, having experienced a far higher tempo of operational employment over the past quarter century than anyone expected - and having generally done a lot better than the doomsayers predicted.
The first major success was the integration of eight very different forces into one national force - a process that could have gone very badly wrong, but instead resulted in a defence force that has repeatedly proved itself operationally.
The strategic defence packages of 1999 are vilified on the basis of corruption allegations. The reality is that, given the amount of money involved, there was almost certainly some corruption, as there is in most countries. That does not change the fact that SA got a good deal: the packages closed key capability gaps and gave the SANDF equipment at truly outstanding prices. That later governments failed to provide the funding for proper maintenance and utilisation should not be blamed on those that acquired it.
Operational performance has been good.
The 1998 intervention in Lesotho was criticised, and there were problems, but it achieved its purpose, to prevent a feared coup d'etat.
During the 2000 floods in Mozambique, South African Air Force (SAAF) helicopters rescued more than 14,500 people from rooftops and trees, transport aircraft flew in relief supplies and mission controllers kept things running smoothly as aircraft of other air forces joined the operation.
Navy divers and medical personnel also performed outstandingly. The SANDF has conducted many search-and-rescue and assistance operations since, at home and in other countries.
In Burundi and Darfur, South African troops were effective as peacekeepers: in Burundi the SANDF was instrumental in making elections possible; in Darfur its sector was the most stable. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the SANDF proved effective in peacekeeping and peace enforcement - especially the Rooivalk helicopters. It also handled the logistics to make the 2011 elections possible.
In 2006 a small SANDF element in the Comoros was reinforced at extremely short notice at the request of the AU to provide election security.
The fighting in Bangui, Central African Republic, in 2013 had a less happy outcome, costing 15 killed and 23 wounded. But that small contingent - some 280 - inflicted such heavy casualties on Seleka forces several thousand strong that they proposed a ceasefire. In recognition, the French at Bangui airport provided an honour guard when the fallen were flown out.
By 2004 the army had three battalions and supporting elements on extended deployments in Burundi, the DRC and Darfur, and in 2006 briefly a fourth in the Comoros. The SAAF had to deploy helicopters to Burundi and the DRC, and various aircraft to the Comoros and the DRC for the 2011 elections. The navy had patrol boats on Lake Tanganyika and from 2011 a frigate or another ship patrolling the Mozambique Channel. In 2011 the support ship SAS Drakensberg spent an extended period in West African waters as an afloat standby base should the visits by heads of state to the conflict-ridden Côte d'Ivoire go wrong.
So the SANDF has been called upon far more often than predicted, which has put stress on the force as its funding has borne no relation to its employment.
There have also been some - not many - strange appointments to key posts, and there has been a failure to act swiftly or even at all when senior officers are guilty of conduct inconsistent with being a commissioned officer. That has set a bad example and brought discredit to the SANDF.
A key failure has been the inability of the SANDF to "sell" itself to the public in the way other armed forces do. Its shows and exhibitions teams do sterling work, but media liaison has been little less than a disaster - as it was for most of the time in the old South African Defence Force.
So some failures, yes, but overall not a bad record for the first quarter century.
Unfortunately, that does not mean all is well with the SANDF: operational overstretch and underfunding have left it with critical capability gaps and equipment rapidly becoming obsolete.
The air force flies maritime missions with 1943 Dakotas that lack a search radar and optronic sensors, and has only some 1963-vintage Hercules for air transport. The navy has too few ships to patrol our waters and the Mozambique Channel, which carries much of our trade and imported oil. Most army equipment is from the 1970/1980s; its tanks from the '50s, albeit modernised. Worse, funding does not allow proper maintenance, not even of the new aircraft and ships. Still worse, tight funding has made really thorough training impossible.
The argument is often made that the SANDF is over-strength, and that its high personnel costs are to blame for its woes. In fact, once one understands that the army is primarily an infantry force and therefore personnel-heavy, the SANDF's personnel costs are not wildly different to those of most Nato forces. The real problem is that of too many older soldiers with families. An infantryman should be in his early 20s and single, not in his 30s with a family. Older soldiers are expensive, but there is no simple way to remedy that - we cannot just throw them into the unemployed pool.
Despite the problems, the SANDF has met every operational challenge, most of them outside the parameters of what the 1998 Defence Review envisaged.
Perhaps in this it is its own worst enemy, allowing politicians to believe they can keep cutting defence and the soldiers will "make a plan". That will not work forever. The bill for skimping on the insurance policy that is the SANDF will be presented, probably in casualties.
Bangui was a warning, showing how suddenly a situation can change for the worse, and how important it is to have adequate forces. War and conflict do not give the luxury of time to undo the effects of neglect.
The SANDF is on a cusp. It has the potential to fully protect SA's interests and help our friends. But if funding does not improve dramatically, it will quickly decline to become little more than a militia incapable of doing more than token patrols of our borders and our waters.
• Römer Heitman is an independent defence analyst